An admissions guy at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism once told me that the best journalists aren’t often the best exam-takers. Excellent, I thought, this is the career for me. As a student I had never felt I’d done myself justice in exams. So I am sympathetic to my students as I stroll the aisles during exam week. Nevertheless, I’ve just finished grading and yet again I notice the same old mistakes that get made year after year. Here they are. Avoid them if you can.
1) “GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE” SYNDROME – Believe me, I remember well that urge to leg it out the door as soon as you’ve put the final period on your final sentence. But a thorough re-reading before you turn in the paper can save a few crucial points. Use spellcheck! Don’t ignore Word’s red squiggly lines. A journalist’s copy should be clean, even in an exam by golly! Your best editor is you. President Obama did not go to Norway to accept the NOBLE Peace Prize.
2) THE AP STYLEBOOK, LEARN TO LOVE IT – I can see how hard it must be to understand the importance of the AP Stylebook when you’re a freshman journalism student. The rule-lovers, love it. It’s something SPECIFIC TO study for a journalism exam. But some students simply refuse to knuckle down and commit to memory the few rules that even the most detail-disoriented among us need to know. I’m not talking attorneys general, that kind of stuff is gravy. I’m talking numbers, ages, titles, addresses and dates. Buy the book and hold on to it. It’s the industry’s bible.
3) TO HELL WITH THE NEWS – You may have ambitions in music journalism or fashion or gossip, but journalism students just have to be up to date on current events. The capital of Afghanistan is not “Arab.” The Defense Secretary is not Hillary Clinton. And if you don’t know who Elin Nordegren is married to, you need to change your major.
4) FORMAT FOR SUCCESS – Nothing makes you look like a rookie faster than failing to format your article properly. Slug it. Put your byline on. Give it a word count. Remember to double space and you’re already well on your way to looking like a pro.
5) LOVE YOUR LEAD – Never underestimate the power of a good lead. Don’t rush it. Craft it. Melvin Mencher says it should not exceed 35 words. I say make sure it scans.